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My Taper’s Keeper: Inside the World of NBA Barbers

They fly all over the country, often at a moment’s notice. They witness the most vulnerable moments in a player’s career. They help shape the look of the league’s most recognizable faces. With great clippers comes great responsibility: Meet the barbers who cut your favorite player’s hair.

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Legend has it that Kobe Bryant was always first in the gym. His fanatical reputation was built before sunrise, and, as the stories go, he was in the gym doing work three or four hours before anyone else even woke up. Kobe was the last man out, and the first man in. Except, he wasn’t—not always.

Kobe was occasionally beat to work by a 5-foot-9 man from Toronto. Vince Garcia is a barber—one of the most famous in coveted NBA circles—and owner of Grey Matter, a shop on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. He took care of two customers while we spoke there late one January afternoon. His clients had no problem with Garcia multitasking; they were just happy to be there. Garcia is a pro’s pro, considered by many in NBA circles to be one of the all-time greats. Player rankings are made by fans and media. NBA barber rankings are made by players.

Back in the early 2010s, Garcia was regularly taking care of several members of the Lakers roster. He didn’t cut Kobe, but he had the Mamba’s work ethic, usually arriving early to the team practice facility on game days. He cut half the team before shootaround began, watched the closed practices, and cut the other half after.

Before we go any further, a note on industry terminology. Barbers cut players. Legendary Atlanta barber Marcus Harvey, along with nearly everyone else I spoke with, asked that the terminology be honored: “The way we say it is not ‘a haircut.’ They say, ‘We about to get cut.’ Do that justice.”

Barbering isn’t typically thought of as part of the pregame ritual—that’s the territory of trainers, dieticians, chefs, and a team’s highly visible PR staff. But for many players, a cut is just as necessary for high performance. It’s the reason most modern facilities have a barber shop setup: a separate room or section with multiple chairs and proper lighting. Teams that don’t have a setup at least have a chair reserved for it.

The importance of hair maintenance might feel hyperbolic from the outside, but it’s the central preoccupation of an NBA barber. They are always on-call, get flown around the country on an hour’s notice, and accept offers to tag along on private jets or gifts of excess Yeezys. And, often, they are witness to life-changing news before anyone else.

To the most superstitious players in the league, a proper cut is the difference between going off and being off. That’s part of the reason why barbers are in such high demand. For other players, it is a matter of simple vanity. Sometimes it’s both.

“I just gotta make sure everything is right,” Tim Hardaway Jr. told me after Knicks practice at UCLA in January. “I’m very superstitious and I’m very arrogant when it comes to that,” he said, emphatically. “Look good, feel good, play good. So if I feel like my hairline is leaning a little bit or receded a little bit …” He paused. “You know.”

I didn’t, but I can say that our conversation took place the day after Hardaway’s 31-point game in Utah. His fade was pristine.

When the Knicks travel to Los Angeles, Hardaway visits Ray Santos, a 24-year-old barber whose rise to relevance parallels that of one of his regular customers: Kyle Kuzma. Santos met Kyle last year, pre-Kuzmania, before the first Lakers Las Vegas summer league game. Heading up in a hotel elevator to cut Lonzo Ball, Santos recognized the other Lakers rookie. An elevator pitch and an Instagram follow later, Santos became Kuzma’s primary barber.

Santos first picked up clippers in high school, in Covina, California, after getting tired of his own hair being hacked. He is already a household, er, mansion name among NBA players, with a long list of out-of-town clients including Zach LaVine, Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Hassan Whiteside.

According to Santos, Kuzma and Ball are both superstitious. After a two-point, 1-for-9 shooting performance in November, Ball wanted to buzz everything off. At that point, he was not only the worst shooter in the league, but the worst through 15 games since 1976.

“He was like, ‘I think it’s time to start over,’” remembers Santos. The next day, Ball made seven consecutive—albeit, wholly uncontested—3s in practice. Santos listed off Lonzo’s improvements since.

“I don’t want to say it’s the haircut, but shit—maybe!” Santos said over lunch in downtown Los Angeles, where he now operates out of his apartment. “Or maybe it’s that all that hair is not in his way.” The stats back up Santos, if ever so slightly. Ever since his look-changing cut, Ball is shooting better and scoring more.

Major changes to a player’s look might happen once or twice a season; C.J. McCollum told me he switches his up once a year. But Hardaway’s “look good, play good” mantra applies every night. One of Devin Booker’s favorite barbers (as a hair aesthete, Booker tries many) is New York’s Davey “Davey Cuts” Castillo, who also serves as his good luck charm: Davey cut Booker the night before his 70-point game.

“I’m hyping him up,” Davey told me over the phone, “like, ‘You ready?’” Davey later texted me more evidence of his spell: In early February, Giannis Antetokounmpo jumped over the 6-foot-6 Hardaway Jr.—an instant Dunk of the Year front-runner. Guess who cut the Greek Freak the night before?

Picky players don’t trust just anyone with their hair; they’re willing to go the extra mile—literally—paying for flights (if need be, also a hotel) to get what they want.

Kemba Walker flies his barber from the Bronx to Charlotte every time he needs to be taken care of. Underwriting this kind of travel is more common for players in smaller markets, as opposed to major barber hubs like Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston. For the most high-maintenance players in the league, those trips can be as often as every five days.

High-level demand once led Garcia to the SLS Las Vegas hotel restroom. His regular customer, Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace, though both Artest and World Peace have sat as Garcia’s clients), asked him to do a hotel call. When Garcia showed up and inquired about where to set up, Artest, sitting at the hotel bar, said, “Right here.”

In the interest of space, available electrical outlets, and sanitation, Garcia convinced Artest to move to the restaurant bathroom, where incoming guests stumbled upon a truly unique Vegas show.

While the setting may not always be as intimate as a hotel restroom, almost every tenured NBA barber has witnessed players in vulnerable, life-altering moments. Private life doesn’t stop when the lining up starts. Derek Nieto is the go-to barber for most of the Houston Rockets, including James Harden. According to Nieto, he was cutting Jeremy Lamb in 2012 when the Rockets rookie had to step out of the room to take a call. When Lamb returned, he was devastated. Houston general manager Daryl Morey had been on the other end of the call telling Lamb he had been traded to Oklahoma City.

Mohammed Kuta Aliyu, who goes by his middle name, saw a similar thing happen to Kris Dunn when he was cutting the then-Minnesota guard during the 2017 NBA draft. Kuta knew he was meant to cut hair since he was a kid in Nigeria selling water and soda outside his older brother’s barber shop. His first experience cutting came when he was 13 years old, pretending to be a trained barber when a customer walked in during his brother’s smoke break. It turned out passion without practice wasn’t enough. The man slapped him after seeing the result.

While Kuta was cutting Dunn in the guard’s Minnesota residence, Kris’s brother John was sitting off to the side, reading Twitter. That’s when he came across the news that changed his sibling’s career path forever: Dunn was being sent to the Bulls in a package deal for Jimmy Butler.

“[John] just told him, like ‘Yo bro, this is what it is,’” Kuta told me over the phone. The clippers stopped. John read the details. A few minutes later, Dunn turned around to face Kuta.

“You know you coming, right?”

Dunn, who is still on his rookie deal that earns him $4 million this year, flies Kuta out to Chicago every other week, sometimes more.

Being present in those moments creates an intimacy beyond what’s already required for putting one’s hairline in another’s hands. NBA barber etiquette essentially boils down to a few rules: Keep overheard conversations confidential; be available; stay quiet unless the client is chatty; and never, under any circumstances, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, push the hairline back.

Which isn’t to say these guys can’t get creative. Bay Area barber JayR, who used to be the primary barber for DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and Doc Rivers, was taking care of Stephen Curry the summer after the Warriors won the 2015 title. He is the reason behind Curry’s switch to a sharper look to start the 2016 season. “I don’t think people cared for his hair back then,” said JayR. “They cared for his shot.” Ayesha Curry gave JayR the nod: “Man, whatever you’re doing to Steph’s hair is great,” she told him at a Clippers-Warriors game during the 2015-16 season. “Keep doing it.” Once, at one of Curry’s houses—he’s been to all three of Steph’s Bay Area abodes—Ayesha offered JayR dinner: steak, prepared vegetables, and a paired wine. And yes, JayR confirmed what we all want to know: She threw down.

MVP x MVB #getfreshcurry #espys

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The barber-player relationship goes beyond appearances. Marcus Harvey has traveled on tour with Nas, sang a Varnell Hill Show duet (from the “Hollywood Swinging: Part 2” episode of Martin, a.k.a. the best episode of Martin) with LeBron James, and is currently the self-titled “team barber” for TNT’s Players Only crew. He now cuts three generations of NBA players and acts as a mentor to the younger clients who sit in his chair. NBA elders and Hall of Famers tell him stories that he passes onto younger players; experiences from the league’s journeymen are translated into advice to a guy who was just traded for the first time. Professor Harvey has given struggling players Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist to get their “mind right” and to “see what you’ve been looking for in life.” He recites stats. He offers advice during shooting slumps.

Musa1 #TheBarberStar

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“If a young rookie is struggling,” said Harvey, “you’re able to tell them, ‘Ay bro, it’s all good, man. People go through this. Your legs are a little tired, bro. This happened to old boy last year at the same time. Holla at the trainer. Maybe you need to put some more shots up. … Talk about getting a plant-based diet.’”

Harvey likes to point out to players how far they’ve come: “I’ll be like, ‘Yo you remember when you were here? Now look at where you at, bruh.

“‘Shrimp and steak baby! Shrimps and steak baby!’”

Everyone enters the NBA barber space in a different way, but most origin stories are about luck and opportunity. Davey Cuts caught a break when his good friend, who happened to be Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s former bodyguard, began working security for the Nets. (He has since gone back to working for the Knowles-Carters. As one should.) Garcia, who started way before Instagram became Yelp for barbers, used to hand out his business cards in L.A. clubs. Kuta acquired his first NBA client, Shabazz Muhammad, by messaging him on Kik that it would be an honor to cut him when he got to Minnesota. Nieto’s pal replied to a Courtney Lee tweet asking for a Houston barber recommendation.

Lee, who visits Garcia when in L.A., recalled visiting someone else last summer in Garcia’s absence as the “worst mistake of my life.” He also claims to cut his own hair sometimes, a practice he began in high school to make extra money—not unlike the start of most NBA barbers.

Hardaway Jr. didn’t buy it—“C-Lee doesn’t cut his damn hair”—but Lee insisted it was true, even offering to cut my hair. (I politely declined.) Lee said he has cut Jeff Teague when the two were teammates at Pike High School in Indianapolis. “Probably,” Teague said when I asked him about it before a Wolves practice in late January. The Minnesota guard is on the other end of the maintenance spectrum.

“Cheapest guy in the league!” he said, smiling. “I take pride in being the cheapest guy in the league.” Teague’s visits are less frequent, maybe once every three or four weeks, and even more spaced out in the summer.

There’s no set price for a cut. Some barbers told me they don’t establish a price; others told me they have a minimum (which ranged from $100–250) but players often pay more. “Just give me what you think it’s worth,” Kuta said. “Just whatever. But don’t give me lower than that.”

For many barbers I spoke with, payday isn’t consistent. A typical $100 cut could be a $3,000 one over the holidays, when the giving season is in full swing; the cut after that could be a $250 house call (trips of any kind cost more), and the time after—say, in the practice facility running through seven or so players at once—might be $1,050 for a few hours of work. Some have their fees covered by production companies involved in making commercials for their clients. Nieto’s rate is included in the contract for every ad Harden is involved with. Draymond Green has made the same arrangement for his barber, Lionel “Brownie Blendz” Harris. “That was something that he just did for me without me even knowing,” Brownie told me over the phone. According to Brownie, Draymond shit talks “10 times worse” in the chair than on the court. Once, during a radio interview, Draymond taunted Brownie while he was on the phone: “Now the barber wants to be a star. And I just need a haircut right now.”

Most players stick with two or three barbers, but Dwight Howard is not so exclusive. The vet—now playing in his fifth city since joining the league in 2004—is not picky, and told me he has go-tos in every town. That includes Mickey West-Potts, a 5-foot-4 woman barber Howard found on Instagram during his stint in Houston. West-Potts either stands on whatever is available to reach 6-foot-11 Howard’s head, or, when possible, he sits in a small chair for her convenience.

West-Potts initially didn’t post a picture of Howard’s cut on her Instagram page until she was sure it would be a recurring thing, even though doing so would put her on the NBA barber map. “It’s just a boy’s world,” Mickey told me in Hollywood, where she recently relocated. She was very pointed about how she felt she had to make a gradual entrance into the NBA world, choosing words with the same care she put into her celebrity posts. “I don’t want to force myself in. I want to be welcomed in with open arms”—that means not encroaching on other barbers’ turf. Her customer list now includes cast members of Netflix’s Dear White People, and Howard told her that other Hornets teammates had been asking about her cuts for themselves.

“Any city I’m in, I try to find the best barber,” Howard told me. He’ll give most Instagram inquiry DMs a chance, just for reaching out. The wildest experience he had was in Minnesota, where an “old man” cut Howard in his van. But of all the barbers he’s tried, Howard called Mickey “the best I’ve ever had.”

Mickey didn’t have to tell anyone that she was cutting Dwight during the 2015-16 season for her other customers to know.

“My clients hit me up like, ‘Oh, I see that cut. That’s your cut!’ … A lot of them hit me up. They was like, ‘Man, his haircut look like you cut his hair.’ And I’m like, ‘I did.’”

Like any artist, barbers have a signature style. Howard, maybe more than any player in the league, is a collector, ready to admire the work up close. It’s why he sought out Mickey, who had no celebrity clients, in a city full of famous barbers.

Harvey says his style was originally distinct because he was doing designs before anyone else. Davey Cuts—who calls every job he does a “Custom Daveycut”—told me his flair comes from catering to the player’s individual style. JayR claims the Northern California style is distinct. Kuta distinguishes his as a “slice.” The barbers I spoke with see their talent as more than an expert job. It’s personal expression.

All artists strive to leave behind a legacy. NBA barbers are behind-the-scenes players but their handiwork—their art—goes on forever in highlights. NBA Hardwood Classics becomes a shadow gallery show for their creations. Brownie’s work will live on through Golden State’s burgeoning dynasty. When people see Draymond Green playing for the greatest regular-season team of all time, they will see Brownie’s talent, too. The same is true for JayR with Curry. Every time footage of Booker’s 70-point game is on TV, so is Davey.

“I used to draw in high school,” said West-Potts. “For me, cutting hair is just like drawing or like art. So I’m intrigued by the artistry of cutting hair. For me, the money, that’s just a plus.”

West-Potts’s passion echoes one of basketball’s most renowned clichés: doing it for the love of the game. That’s what’s behind the red-eye flights, the stress, and beating the sunrise—and sometimes, even Kobe—to their job. When your life revolves around NBA players, it can start to resemble that of an NBA player.

“I don’t think people understand how much pressure it is, how tough it is, and how erratic the schedules are,” Brownie said. “Only the barbers really understand. … A lot of people see the glamour of what I do. They see me kind of run around and all the places I’ve gone and people I’ve met, but I don’t think they really understand all the work that goes into it.”

Players, however, do. “[Draymond’s] real focused in the chair,” Brownie said, “because they know I’m real focused. That’s my arena.”

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